A relationship with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is one of the most complicated and challenging of all possible relationships. Those challenges unfortunately do not end once the relationship ends, especially if there are children involved. Raising those children with a narcissistic ex poses many unique co-parenting challenges and often requires some very specific strategies to protect both yourself and your kids. In this Ultimate Guide to Co-Parenting with a Narcissist, you will learn how to make the very best of your difficult situation.
What is a Narcissist?
It is important to start by defining what it really means to have NPD since this term is often applied very loosely. A person with NPD has a true mental illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated by a trained mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Unfortunately, this rarely happens since they have little insight into their own problems and rarely seek help for them. This “diagnosis” often gets made by the abused and traumatized (ex)partner who has been the brunt of the narcissists’ dysfunctional emotions and behavior. While there is clearly some danger to this diagnostic process, it is in reality how it often happens. Given that, having a fuller understanding of the symptoms of NPD seems essential for the narcissist’s (ex)partner so they know exactly what they are dealing with and how to best protect themselves and their children from further abuse.
People with NPD have a rigid, long-standing pattern of thinking and behaving that starts in late adolescence/early adulthood and that interferes with all aspects of their functioning. Someone with NPD has the following characteristics:
- A grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty
- Belief that they are special and unique, and exaggeration of their achievements/talents
- Require constant and excessive admiration and attention
- A sense of entitlement with unreasonable expectations of how they should be treated
- Interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to meet their needs
- Complete lack of empathy, unable to recognize or identify with the feelings of others
- Arrogant, conceited, boastful, and pretentious
- A belief that others are envious of them
There is a qualitative difference between a person with a diagnosable NPD and what you might witness if your ex’s mood and behavior deteriorate, and they become self-centered, angry, and emotionally abusive as your relationship unravels. A relationship ending can bring out the worst in everyone involved, but that should never be the sole basis for assuming someone has NPD. The diagnostic criteria must be present and have existed for many years as a long-standing pattern, for someone to be truly considered having NPD.
What is a Covert Narcissist?
Covert narcissism (CN) is a term that has been used much more extensively over the past couple of years. It is not actually a separate diagnosis but rather a way to describe a subset of people who meet the general criteria of NPD. While they still have an exaggerated need for admiration and are unable to feel empathy like an overt narcissist, their outward behavior is very different and more introverted. This often makes it harder to identify and somewhat more confusing for the person dealing with them.
A person with CN tends not to be outgoing and attention-seeking like the more overt narcissist but may appear shy or withdrawn. They might avoid social situations since they create too much anxiety for them. While they do not appear to be grandiose or express a sense of self-importance, they struggle with a very fragile self-esteem and need constant validation to prove they are okay. They are also more prone to depression. Despite these differences between overt and covert narcissism, the nature of the abuse that they cause is similar and the experience of interacting with them is equally traumatic.
Being in a Relationship with a Narcissist
The emotional impact on the (ex)romantic partner of the narcissist is pervasive and often devastating given the abusive behaviors that they constantly experience. These behaviors fall into the categories of being Accused, Belittled, and Controlled/Confused: the ABCs of narcissistic abuse.
Accused: You will often be accused of the same inappropriate behaviors that they are engaged in, a process called projection. You will be constantly told you are not good enough and will be berated for your inadequacies. They will take little blame or responsibility for their behavior and feel that everyone else, especially you, are the problem.
Belittled: Hurtful things will be said to you, and they will appear oblivious to the pain that they are causing you given their lack of empathy. You will get described in degrading terms and they will tell everyone that you are the crazy one. They will appear charming to everyone but you, who will be exposed to their absolute worst.
Controlled/Confused: You will feel constantly manipulated as a means of them getting their needs for attention met. You will be told that your experiences or feelings don’t matter since everything is about them. There will be payback for defying them or breaking their rules. They will deny things they did or said, resulting in your wondering if you are going crazy. Your perception of reality will be questioned, a behavior known as gaslighting.
All these pathological behaviors mask the pervasive insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation that the narcissist experiences. It is essential to understand and remember that they are wounded and emotionally damaged human beings who lack the ability to establish and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. While this doesn’t make coping with these behaviors any easier, it does serve to remind you that their behaviors are not about you or your inadequacy as they often try to make you believe.
How a Narcissist Reacts When the Relationship Ends
As a marriage or relationship with a narcissist starts to fall apart and eventually comes to an end, several very predictable things will happen given the nature of their pathology. They will accept no role in the relationship failing and will put all the blame on you. Their personal attacks will get worse and their desire to create emotional chaos will escalate. Their attempts to control you will get more extreme and abusive. And what might come as a surprise and feel somewhat confusing, they may beg you to stay out of their fear of abandonment.
As you can see, things will predictably get worse before they get better. All their fears and vulnerabilities will be triggered as the relationship comes to an end, and the months following may be the most difficult that you have experienced. This intensity typically starts to wane once things return to some new normal and both of you start the process of healing, although their inappropriate behaviors will never totally disappear. It will be important to hold onto this knowledge so that you can have realistic expectations and not set yourself up with the hope that things will turn peaceful as soon as you are no longer together.
The Narcissist Parent
All the traits associated with NPD are completely at odds with what is necessary to be a good parent. A narcissist is unable to provide unconditional love since their approval is contingent upon their children meeting their needs. They are unable to put their kids’ needs above their own or to be an empathic listener who can provide emotional support. They are unable to differentiate between their child’s behavior and them being a bad person, so they often demean and damage the child’s developing self-esteem. And as their children get older, they struggle to foster their independence since their primary interpersonal goal is to control the other person.
As a result of these parenting deficiencies, the narcissist enters the co-parenting relationship with serious limitations and challenges. Again, it is essential that you are realistic about what they are capable of doing so that you don’t expect more from them than they are able to give. That is a horrible set up for you and will only serve to leave you constantly upset and disappointed. More on that in a bit….
Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
This combination of emotional and behavioral instability results in the narcissist being a very challenging co-parenting partner. They lack the ability to do many of the things necessary for co-parenting to work. Those include respectful communication, compromising to resolve differences, putting the children’s needs first, and keeping emotions in check to avoid conflict. And remember that the period immediately following the separation/divorce may be the time that these challenges are the most pronounced and the ability to co-parent is most difficult.
These are all the reasons why parallel parenting is often the most appropriate and effective means of raising children with a narcissist, especially during the volatile early phase of that relationship.
What is Parallel Parenting?
Parallel parenting is based on two assumptions. The first is that children generally benefit from both of their parents playing an active role in their lives. The second is that the parents are unable to work together in a cooperative way to raise their children and attempting to do so would be harmful both to the children as well as to the parents. Parallel parenting presents the best option to address both of those assumptions in that it allows parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives with minimal contact with the other parent.
In this type of parenting arrangement, the amount of interaction between the two high-conflict parents is minimized as much as possible. Each parent has their own areas of responsibility, so they minimize the need for interaction and collaboration. Parents handle their time with the children in their own way, with no input from the other. Face to face communication is avoided and the preferable mode of communication is electronic (see section on apps) or with the help of a professional mediator.
There are many situations in which a parallel parenting plan is necessary for only a limited period following the end of the relationship to give both parents, especially the narcissist, an opportunity to de-escalate from all the conflict and tension. Once that happens, it is then possible to transition to a healthier co-parenting relationship that involves more collaboration and interaction. In other more extreme high-conflict relationships, that may never be possible, and the parallel parenting model will be utilized throughout the children’s lives.
Even with a parallel parenting plan in place, there remains the potential for both you and your children to experience further emotional damage at the hands of the narcissist. Therefore, it is essential that you implement a variety of strategizes to minimize the chances of that happening.
Steps to Take to Protect Yourself Emotionally
- Reframe your expectations and be realistic about their ability to co-parent
- Expect challenges and approach them calmly and rationally
- Fully embrace the reality that you have no power to change them
- Avoid emotional arguments whenever possible
- Commit to being pleasant, calm, and un-emotional when you do have to interact since they feed on your negative emotions
- Maintain perspective on conflicts and remember that it is about their low self-esteem not your inadequacy
- Find yourself a good therapist to help you heal, stay firm in your boundaries, and support your challenges
- Retain a compassionate and assertive attorney with experience dealing with narcissists
Steps to Take to Protect Yourself Practically
- Establish firm boundaries, especially about communication, and stick with them consistently
- Create an extremely detailed parenting plan that you always follow, the greater the detail the less conflict there will be
- Document everything should you need it for future litigation
- Have minimal contact with your children when they are with your ex to avoid conflict
- Have a parent coordinator appointed by the court or seek one out independently to help resolve conflicts
- If there is potential for abuse, take action to protect yourself
Steps to Take to Protect Your Children
All the strategies you can use to protect your children from a narcissist parent share a similar goal. They all focus on you providing the balancing, healthy counter to the problematic behaviors exhibited by their other parent. You need to show them, by example, that there is a healthier way of interacting than what they experience with their other parent. That can seem like a daunting task, particularly as you struggle with your own emotional challenges. However, given that you have no power to change your ex, this is the best and only way to protect your children that is truly within your power to achieve.
Committing to these strategies is the most powerful way of showing your children that there is a healthier way of parenting and engaging with the world. They will come to see and understand that through you example. This is a much more effective strategy than trying to prove to them how inappropriate their other parent is. That strategy is guaranteed to backfire and will often result in your children being angry with you, which of course is the exact opposite of what you were trying to accomplish.
Protecting Your Children Emotionally
- Teach and model appropriate social interaction by being respectful and thoughtful
- Teach and model appropriate emotional responses by being calm and non-reactive
- Provide unconditional love that is not contingent on their behavior or moods
- Nurture your children’s unique qualities and foster their independence
- Parent with empathy and acknowledge their feelings
- Help children recognize and express their feelings
Protecting Your Children Practically
- Find a qualified child psychologist to provide emotional support and healing for your children
- Have a Guardian Ad Litem (law guardian) appointed by the court to represent and protect their interests
- If there is abuse, take all steps necessary to protect their safety
There are several excellent apps that offer help with the challenges of co-parenting and parallel parenting. They include:
- Our Family Wizard: tools for sharing schedules, facilitating communication, and managing finances, widely accepted as a documentation tool by many court jurisdictions ($99/parent/year)
- Coparently: tools to help coordinate schedules, communicate clearly, and track expenses ($99/year/parent, 30-day free trial)
- Cozi: free online calendar program to help with co-parenting communication
- Talking Parents: documents a record of communication acceptable to many courts (PDF records are $9.99 or free with a Premium account for $19.99/month)
- 2Houses: provides a co-parent calendar, expense manager, and custody journal ($12.50/month/family)
Trying to raise children with a narcissistic ex is an incredibly challenging task. The information contained in this Ultimate Guide to Co-Parenting with a Narcissist unfortunately does not have the power to remove all the stress from that endeavor. However, following the suggestions and implementing the strategies will go a long way toward minimizing that stress and protecting you and your children from further emotional damage.